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Canadian Wildfire Smoke Casts a Veil: A Photographer's Bittersweet Reality
This week, photography is a delightful combination of double golden hours every day. It's the enchanting moments just before sunset when the sun's radiant light takes on a softer, more diffuse quality. It's a photographer's dream for its warm, embracing tones, and the way it banishes the harsh shadows and blinding brilliance of direct sunlight (for example, see these photos I took yesterday in direct sunlight at 3 p.m.).
In the last light of the day, images bask in even exposure, free from the clutches of harsh contrast. Despite its name, this golden hour often lasts far shorter, particularly if you find yourself closer to the equator. But my wanderings often lead me farther north, like to the Dutch island, where, under the right conditions, this golden interlude stretches to at least half an hour.
There is also good news because there are two of these golden half-hours each day, and together, they do justice to the 60-minute promise of warm hues. I've shared glimpses of the morning golden hour with you before; recently, when waking up on the island and photographing the view when I stepped into the garden, or walked on the beach in the early morning, or in July while treading the Camino de Santiago, starting my journey in the pre-dawn embrace of soft light. Just before the sun ascends or descends, its rays take a longer journey through the atmosphere, filtering out the cool blues and gifting the world with warm reds, oranges, and shimmering golds.
But Ottawa has its own version of a double golden hour these days. The foliage has begun transforming the verdant leaves of summer, casting aside their green looks for an array of golden hues.
This photograph I snapped just a few hours ago is a testament to this transformation. Here, you witness the leaves' graceful transition and the road below bathed in the gentle caress of warm sunlight, a double whammy of golden shades.
Canadian forest fires
Unfortunately, just when I am about to leave you with images of beauty, warmth, and happiness, my tale takes a twist as I contemplate the notion of a triple golden hour; I'm loath to leave you on a somber note. But how can I ignore the dramatic Canadian forest fires that have cast a dusty filter upon the air, lending each shot a hint of hazy melancholy?
Today's PM2.5 concentration in Ottawa, those minuscule particles one should avoid breathing in, stands at 5.5 times the annual air quality guideline value set by the World Health Organization. There is a good reason for this guideline: these tiny particles are not filtered by the upper airway and can get into your blood, which may result in many adverse health effects like cancer, heart attacks, or preterm birth. But it can be much worse. In Yellowknife, where the skies have turned a treacherous deep orange, the Air Quality Index has soared to a shocking 55 times above the WHO guidelines.
The ominous veil of wildfire smoke looms as a significant threat to years of hard-fought progress in air quality. A newly released study featured in Nature has illuminated a disheartening revelation: in the continental United States, the gains in air quality have suffered a perilous setback. According to the study, the smoke emanating from wildfires has, since 2016, unraveled a quarter of the air quality enhancements painstakingly attained since the year 2000. Since the study used data collected until 2022, the impact of the West Maui wildfire smoke and the record-breaking Canadian wildfires of this year that turned New York orange have not been included.
As I write these lines and contemplate how climate change leads to hideous wildfires, whose smoke particles contribute to beautiful sunsets, I find myself akin to a troubadour of the 21st century, unearthing joy amidst sorrow and beauty amidst destruction. I find it hard to enjoy beauty while bearing the burden of knowledge about sad things to happen.
Life sometimes resembles an Italian opera; I can identify with Cavaradossi singing "E lucevan le stelle," recalling both his love for Tosca and his impending doom.
Therefore, let me end by showing how Puccini masterfully combined desperation about the near future with love and beauty. Take a moment to watch this video of Luciano Pavarotti in the 1978 Metropolitan Opera production of Puccini's 'Tosca':
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